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Thursday, May 28, 2020

Chapter 2

Thank you, Mike Bouton. You and your students have greatly inspired me.
When Justice and Mercy invited the Journey of Hope…from Violence to Healing to Alabama, the original plan called for meetings in ten different cities, two a week for five weeks. Shelley Douglass told me that several Alabamians would be speaking on the Journey of Hope. On a Journey it is very important to have residents from your host state speak. Callie Greer and Gary Drinkard volunteered to speak for JAM and Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty (PHADP), the two major groups who worked together to bring the Journey of Hope to Alabama.
Callie has a brother who was on Alabama’s death row until 2005, when the US Supreme Court abolished the death penalty for juveniles.  His death sentence was commuted to Life Without the Possibility of Parole (LWOP).  She also suffered the experience of her son, a young man named Mercury, being murdered. Callie shares how those two events helped form her philosophies on life and the death penalty.    
Gary Drinkard was sentenced to death row for a crime he did not commit.   I have attended many conferences in the abolition movement over the years and have met Gary several times.  He is a member of a relatively new, yet very powerful organization call “Witness to Innocence.” WIT’s members were all sentenced to death, but were exonerated.  I saw him in Austin, Texas, last fall when WIT conducted a speaking tour whose conclusion coincided with the 12th  Annual March to End the Death Penalty.  The exonerees were asked to lead the march to the State Capitol.  I will never forget the scene of 25 exonerated death row inmates lining the stairs of the State House that Saturday afternoon. Each testified that if the state they were condemned in would have had their way they would be dead.  
Gary and I talked about the upcoming Alabama Journey of Hope.
According to Shelley: 

“JAM is a community of people who seek to do justice and to love mercy as we try to follow the way of Jesus. Humbly recognizing our own need for mercy, we ask mercy for others,
including those on death row. We affirm our care and concern for all who are victimized by violent crime. In the face of the devastating effects of murder, with God’s help we seek restorative justice and healing for everyone.”

JAM was formed about four years ago, intended to be a community rather than an organization.  They chose the death penalty as the first focus for the work they would do together. Although it is a small group, members are committed to nonviolence as part of their Christian faith and practice. They try and to work out of that commitment in JAM. 
The Alabama Journey of Hope was JAM’s second big event.  In February 2011 they held an anti-death penalty conference that drew 150 people.  They were surprised to draw such a large crowd on their first event. 
JAM members are Shelley and Jim Douglass, Tom and Doreen Duley, Fisher and Caroline Humphries, Lynn and Scott Douglas, Betty Likis and Lexi Ambrose.  You will be hearing about most of these people again.
Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty is an Alabama death row prisoner founded and run organization, established in 1989.  Their mission is to work together with friends and other supporters to educate the public and to bring about the abolition of the death penalty in Alabama.
Esther Brown is the Executive Director of PHADP and all board members are death row inmates.  Esther made sure the Alabama Journey of Hope was promoted through PHADP’s website with the help of Brandon Fountain. In September they made their first post about the upcoming Journey:

A Journey of Hope in Alabama

Opportunities to raise awareness about the death penalty!
In January and February of 2012 JAM and Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty will join with Journey of Hope... From Violence to Healing to sponsor a series of speaking events around Alabama. Journey of Hope is a group composed of people who have had a loved one murdered and yet speaks out against the death penalty. JAM (Justice & Mercy for All) is a small Christian community that works against the death penalty from a faith perspective. Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty is a death row founded and run organization and an affiliate of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. The speaking events will include people from Journey of Hope and members of JAM and Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty who can speak to the death penalty in Alabama. There will also be written material available at each venue.

Currently, speaking events are being planned in Birmingham, Cullman, Huntsville, Jacksonville, Mobile, Montgomery, Greene County, Auburn and Tuskegee. The speaking tour will lead up to the 2012 state legislative session and the introduction of the death penalty moratorium bills by Senator Hank Sanders and Representative Merika Coleman.

The kickoff for the Alabama Journey of Hope was at the Auburn Unitarian Universalist Church in Auburn on August 5.  Senator Hank Sanders (D- Selma) was the keynote speaker.  Senator Sanders has been introducing a moratorium bill for every legislative session in recent history.  Esther Brown had a chance to talk with the Senator before the program started and shared with him how she had been losing hope for abolition in Alabama.  When the Senator spoke to the crowd that had gathered, he made a surprise announcement. Even Esther was taken off guard.
I believe his surprise announcement was a spur-of-the-moment decision to help rejuvenate Esther and help keep her hope alive. The 2012 Alabama Journey of Hope began with headlines in an article by William White of the Opelika-Auburn News. The Birmingham News followed with this editorial.

Why the sudden interest in Alabama’s death penalty?
Alabama has just been a blip on the radar screen of the national abolition movement.  Eric Velasco wrote a very informative article about Alabama and its death penalty system in December a few weeks before the Journey began. When I saw his article in the Birmingham News, I read it with much interest. When I saw my friend and Journey supporter Dick Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center had been interviewed, I knew the information Eric reported was accurate: 

Alabama is Near the Top in Imposing, Conducting the Death Penalty

Alabama ranks second in the nation for the number of executions it conducted in 2011 and is tied for third in death sentences imposed this year, statistics compiled by the Death Penalty Information Center show.
"Alabama is one of the leading death penalty states in the country," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Washington-based DPIC. "It is a leader in executions and death sentences, both in absolute numbers and per capita."
Alabama ranks 23rd nationally in population, but has the country's fifth-largest death-row population. Its 55 executions since 1976, when a four-year national moratorium on the death penalty was lifted, puts Alabama sixth among states allowing capital punishment.
Alabama put six murderers to death by lethal injection in 2011, accounting for 14 percent of the 43 executions nationwide, according to the annual year-end report by the clearinghouse on death penalty statistics.
Texas, with 13 executions this year, led the nation. No more executions are set this year in any of the 34 states that allow capital punishment, the DPIC said.
Nationally in 2011, the number of executions dropped slightly, continuing a general decline since 2000. The 43 executions in the U.S. were three fewer than in 2010 and a 49 percent drop from 2000, when 85 killers were put to death.
Alabama's eight death sentences in 2011 puts it behind only Florida (13) and California (10), according to the DPIC. Arizona and Texas also reported eight death sentences in 2011.
"Death sentencing in Alabama is down somewhat from the 1990s," Dieter said, "but it has not dropped as dramatically as in other states, and it still remains high for a state its size. Alabama still shows a strong commitment to the death penalty."
The number of new death sentences nationally dropped 30 percent versus the 2010 level.
Through mid-December, 78 death sentences were imposed nationally. That is a 65 percent reduction since 2000, when 224 murderers were condemned, according to the DPIC.
This year marks the first time since 1976 that fewer than 100 murderers were sentenced to death in the United States, DPIC statistics show.
Alabama is seeing a drop in death sentences, statistics show. After averaging 13 per year from 1977 to 2007, judges have condemned an average of roughly nine murderers over the last four years.
"This year, the use of the death penalty continued to decline by almost every measure," Dieter said. "Whether it's concern about unfairness, executing the innocent, the high costs of the death penalty, or the general feeling that the government just can't get it right, Americans moved further away from capital punishment in 2011."
Public support:
Polls conducted this year show capital punishment still has strong but diminishing support in the U.S.
A national Gallup Poll about the death penalty, which offered no alternatives, found 61 percent supporting capital punishment, compared to 80 percent in 1994, the DPIC reported.
A CNN poll giving respondents a choice between death and life without parole had 50 percent favoring the lesser sentence and 48 percent choosing death, the DPIC report said.
In 2011, Illinois became the fourth state in four years to abolish the death penalty. Oregon's governor announced this month no executions would take place in that state before he leaves office in 2015.
Despite in-state abolition efforts, Alabama's commitment to capital punishment remains strong among politicians and voters, said Natalie Davis, a political science professor at Birmingham Southern University and a public-opinion expert.
As long as Alabama continues to allow less-than-unanimous jury verdicts calling for death by lethal injection and grants elected judges the right to override those recommendations, state death penalty statistics will remain high, she said.
"If you're running for a circuit court judgeship and you say you oppose the death penalty, you'll never get elected," Davis said. "It's a deal-breaker for so many voters when it comes to election time."